Noted Guitar Historian Dies: Harvey Turnbull (1936-2017)

An Appreciation by Graham Wade

Many guitarists around the world will be sad to hear that Harvey Turnbull, author of The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day (published in 1974) and a co-contributor of the entry about the guitar in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, died on October 14, 2017.

The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day followed the publication of various informative books on guitar history, such as Frederic V. Grunfeld’s The Art and Times of the Guitar (1969) and Alexander Bellow’s The Illustrated History of the Guitar (1970). Unlike Grunfeld and Bellow, however, Turnbull decided to begin his history of the guitar with “the Renaissance as a starting point, as it is only at this period that one can consider the guitar in relation to its music.” His aim, he wrote, was to ensure that “the guitar will cease to be regarded with surprise or wonder and finally become accepted as playing a normal part in the world of music.”

Turnbull’s approach was innovative, presenting a book with precise scholarly intent and no frills. He concentrated his research on period instruments in museums which could be literally measured and evaluated. This was then matched with appropriate commentary on the music available for those instruments. Thus, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day opened the way to a more objective approach to guitar scholarship, a methodology which set a precedent to enable subsequent scholars to explore the entirety of guitar history in astonishing detail.

I first met Harvey in 1957 and we became lifelong friends. At Cambridge University, England (1959-1962)—where he was ostensibly studying philosophy but practicing the guitar most of the time)—we organized the University Classical Guitar Society together. This involved arranging weekly lessons for the members with the Society’s tutor—Jerzy Jezewski, from Len Williams’ Spanish Guitar Centre in London—giving duo concerts round the city, and acting as hosts in receptions for Julian Bream and George Malcolm when they concertized in Cambridge. We also booked two recitals in 1960 with the young John Williams (son of Len), a thrilling and revelatory experience,


Through all this, Harvey Turnbull was an inspirational force, playing the guitar superbly (his party piece was Torroba’s Sonatina), and possessing a huge collection of Segovia recordings and editions, magazines, etc., which he willingly loaned out. Eventually, in the late 1960s, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day was written in Bohemian circumstances when Harvey rented a garden shed from the widow of the philosopher G.E. Moore, and lived there for five years, selling his LPs and other items to acquire money for research and food.

Once the book was published, Harvey metamorphosed from guitar scholar to ethnomusicologist. This new passion consumed him and he began the task of recording musicians from the Far East and Africa, observing their techniques and interviewing them about their musical concepts. With the assistance of a Guggenheim scholarship he was able to carry this work forward to create a substantial archive of tapes and informative material.

For a while, the fruits of this work found a convenient home in the Cambridge University Music Department. But when the faculty seemed to ignore the centrality in music education of this research, Harvey removed his archives to his own residence (having left the garden shed way behind). His house became an exciting research center where one might encounter Japanese koto players or a West African kora virtuoso.

Over 60 years of friendship with Harvey, I admired his tolerant and amiable nature, as well as his serious approach to music of every kind. He was an avid polyglot who studied several languages, including Japanese and Chinese, Arabic, German, and French.

Among his many remarkable achievements, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day remains as one of those seminal texts every guitarist should read.


Speaking of historic guitars, watch Rolf Lislevand play a piece on the only playable Antonio Stradivari guitar, known as “Sabionari,” dating back to 1679: