Aoife O’Donovan’s ‘Prodigal Daughter’

Once you’ve gotten a feel for the fingerpicking pattern, played in dropped-C tuning, look for ways to add your own variations to the song.

On the studio recording of “Prodigal Daughter,” from Aoife O’Donovan’s album Age of Apathy (reviewed in this year’s March/April issue), the Irish American singer-songwriter plays gentle layers of acoustic guitar that, combined with co-writer Tim O’Brien’s mandola, form an intricate web of sound whose individual voices are difficult to disentangle. But a duo version with the singer Allison Russell, filmed live backstage at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival, offers a close look at how O’Donovan plays the accompaniment to this take on the prodigal son parable.

The arrangement here is based on that Newport performance but it also works with the album version. O’Donovan plays the song in dropped-C tuning, in which the sixth string of her Collings 01 Mahogany is lowered two whole steps, to C from E. She uses first-position chord shapes in the key of C major, with a capo at the ninth fret causing everything to sound dulcetly in the key of A major. Note the economy of motion as well as the harmonic color made possible by these shapes—for instance, the Fsus2, C/E, and D7sus4 chords all share the same highest and middle notes, C and G, respectively, and the progression is created by simply changing the lowest note in each subsequent chord. 


To give you a sense of what to do with your picking hand, I’ve transcribed the intro, with its melodic fingerpicking moves, as well as the first several bars of the verse accompaniment pattern. While these parts might look tricky on paper, the latter is essentially a basic Travis-picking pattern that should come together quickly once you get the hang of it. [See this article in the December 2017 issue for a primer on this approach.]

Note that O’Donovan tends to vary the accompaniment pattern a bit, sometimes playing the Csus2 chord’s root note (C) on the fifth string rather than the sixth, and adding the occasional hammer-on or pull-off embellishment, for instance. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the fingerpicking pattern, look for ways to add your own variations to the song.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work here. You can find the notation or tablature in the digital or physical copy of the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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