Guitars are made of numerous different parts, many of which are made of wood. The choice of wood in the guitar body (the solid body and laminate in electric guitars and the sides, back and top of acoustic guitars), neck and fretboard all contribute to the overall playability, feel and, of course, tone of the instrument. Since Sapele is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it's worth investigating whether it's a good tonewood or not.
Is Sapele a good guitar tonewood? Sapele is a hardwood tonewood with fine grain. It offers a warm tone with sustaining lower-mids and pronounced high-end. Sapele is popular in the sides/backs of acoustic and hollowbody electric guitars but doesn't see much use in solid bodies, fretboards or necks.
In this article, we'll discuss if and how Sapele tonewood is used in electric, acoustic, classical and bass guitar construction with a keen focus on its tone.
Note: in my research for this article, I used Sweetwater's extensive guitar database to find examples of guitars with sapele in their construction. The links to the guitars in this article will send readers to Sweetwater's site for more information. Sweetwater is featured in My New Microphone's Top 10 Best Online Audio Gear/Equipment Retailers.
Table Of Contents
- Characteristics Of Sapele Tonewood
- Is Sapele A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Sapele A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
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Characteristics Of Sapele Tonewood
Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) is a tonewood from the genus Entandrophragma and family Meliaceae, which means it shares the same family as mahogany. Other names for Sapele include sapelli and sapele mahogany. It is native to tropical Africa.
To learn more about mahogany as a tonewood, check out my article Is Mahogany A Good Guitar Tonewood? Electric, Acoustic & Bass.
Sapele is listed on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species due to a population reduction of over 20% in the past three generations. CITES, however, does not restrict Sapele.
The heartwood of Sapele is a golden to dark reddish-brown. Its interlocked grain ranges greatly in its configuration, producing ribbon, pommele, quilted, mottled, wavy, beeswing, or fiddleback patterns, depending on how the particular tree grew.
Sapele hardwood has a blunting effect on woodworking tools. Its interlocked grain is prone to tear-out, and the wood reacts negatively to iron. That being said, it finishes well.
As a tonewood, Sapele is balanced and projecting, offering a slightly brighter performance than mahogany. Its lower mids are beautifully pronounced, and its resonance is notable as well.
Here are a few notable sapele specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: golden to dark reddish brown
- Grain: interlocked, sometimes wavy
- Texture: fine, uniform
- Pores: diffuse-porous
- Density: 670 kg/m3 / 41.8 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 6,280 N / 1,410 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 12.04 GPa / 1,746,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
- Price: moderate to high
Here are links to the official website of the IUCN and Cites:
• IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
• CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
Is Sapele A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
Before we begin, I should mention that tonewoods don't have nearly as much of an effect on the overall sound of an electric guitar as they do on an acoustic guitar. The guitar pickups, strings, signal chain and amplifier all play a huge role in the overall tone of an electric guitar. It's not all about the wood, though it is a factor.
Sapele is largely chosen as an alternative to mahogany, a superb electric guitar tonewood in its own right. It makes sense, then, that sapele would be a great tonewood for electric guitars, too.
In particular, sapele excels as a neck tonewood, though it's also incorporated into hollowbody designs as a strong back and side material.
Its tone offers a resonant low end with an articulate midrange and notable sparkle in the top end.
Is Sapele A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Mahogany is one of the most popular tonewoods for solidbody electric guitars, but sapele is rarely ever considered. Of course, it could be a viable choice, though on the heavy side.
Rather, sapele is typically used in hollowbody designs (back, sides and top) when it is incorporated into electric guitars.
The use of sapele in hollowbody electrics is largely a Taylor practice, though other big-name manufacturers do the same.
Taylor is featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World.
Sapele offers a big tone across the frequency spectrum in the hollowbody electrics that use it.
Examples of electric guitars with sapele bodies/tops:
- Taylor T3: semi-hollowbody with sapele body (figured maple top)
- Ibanez Artcore AS53: semi-hollowbody with sapele body and top
- Taylor T5 Custom Koa: hollowbody with sapele body (koa top)
- Taylor T5z Classic Koa: hollowbody with sapele body (koa top)
- Taylor T5z Classic Sassafras: hollowbody with sapele body (sassafras top)
Is Sapele A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Sapele is also a viable neck tonewood for electric guitars. Its warm and articulate tone can enhance the overall sound of an instrument, and it feels very nice. Sapele necks are often combined with ebony fretboards to achieve a powerful yet balanced tone (combining the warmth of sapele with the brightness of ebony).
Its medium density and stability make it a durable choice.
Examples of electric guitars with sapele necks:
- Taylor T3: semi-hollowbody with sapele neck (ebony fretboard)
- Taylor T5z Classic Koa: hollowbody with sapele neck (West African ebony fretboard)
- Taylor T5z Classic Sassafras: hollowbody with sapele neck (ebony fretboard)
Is Sapele A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Sapele is generally considered too soft and porous for use as an electric guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
Sapele is more commonly considered for acoustic and classical guitars (compared to electrics). Its versatility as a tonewood allows it to excel as a body material (backs, sides and tops) as well as a neck material. This is in large part due to its medium-density and superb tonal characteristics.
Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Sapele is relatively easy to bend and makes for a strong back and sides material for acoustic and classical guitars. Its balanced tone provides warmth and clarity from the bottom end to the high frequencies. It's this balance, combined with notable headroom, that makes sapele an attractive choice for strumming and softer fingerstyle playing alike.
Examples of acoustic guitars with sapele backs and sides:
- Fender FA-15 3/4 Scale: acoustic with sapele back and sides (agathis top)
- Taylor American Dream AD27e: acoustic with sapele back and sides (mahogany top)
- Martin D-10E Road Series: acoustic with sapele back and sides (sapele top)
- Ibanez AEG50N: classical with sapele back and sides (spruce top)
- Taylor Academy 12e-N: classical with layered sapele back and sides (Lutz spruce top)
Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Sapele is relatively hard compared to the more popular top woods. However, it still projects loudly and can look absolutely amazing with the variety of grain figures it may possess (ribbon, pommele, quilted, mottled, wavy, beeswing, or fiddleback).
It emphasizes the midrange, though it certainly isn't thin in the lows or subdued in the highs. It's a great all-around choice, even if it's relatively uncommon.
Examples of acoustic guitars with sapele tops:
- Martin D-10E Road Series: acoustic with sapele top (sapele back and sides)
- Ibanez PN12E: acoustic with sapele top (nyatoh back and sides)
Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Sapele can be a superb neck tonewood for acoustic guitars as well. It's articulate and stable; it feels nice, and its balanced tone can enhance the sound of whichever fretboard material is chosen (often ebony).
Examples of acoustic guitars with sapele necks:
- Taylor 214ce Deluxe: acoustic with sapele neck (ebony fretboard)
- Taylor Academy 12e-N: classical with sapele neck (ebony fretboard)
Is Sapele A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Sapele is generally considered too soft and porous for use as an acoustic guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is Sapele A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Sapele isn't nearly as common in bass guitars as it is with electric and acoustic guitars. Of course, that's not to say that it's a terrible tonewood for bass.
Rather, there are better, more popular options out there for bass guitars. Sapele is relatively heavy for bass bodies and necks. Since they're larger instruments than “regular” guitars, the weight can be a detriment, especially when there are plenty of other viable tonewoods.
Examples of bass guitars with sapele tonewood:
- Ibanez PCBE12MH: acoustic bass with sapele top, back and sides
- Ibanez AEB105E: acoustic bass with sapele back and sides
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides Sapele. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:
- Panga Panga
- Pau Ferro