Douglas Niedt

I Saw Three Ships

Christmas Sheet Music
Standard Notation and Tab

My arrangement of this well known carol is fairly easy to play. It shouldn't be too much of a struggle to learn by Christmas. Unlike some easy or watered down classical guitar arrangements, I think this one has some nice twists and sounds really good.

I have three versions of the arrangement: easy-to-play, intermediate, and late-intermediate.

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Subscribe now and you will automatically receive Doug's special Christmas package--his arrangement of the Christmas carol O Come O Come Emmanuel. You receive the music and four free videos where Doug shows you how to play the arrangement! Learn more about the arrangement here.

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol

The words of this English carol (its alternate title is On Christmas Day in the Morning) were first published in 1666. The wonderfully bouncy tune in 6/8 is thought to be a traditional English melody. Historians love to debate the symbolism found within the different versions (there are many) of the lyrics. Most believe the three ships were meant to represent the three Wise Men. The "three ships" refers to the belief that there were three Wise Men--the number three coming from the number of gifts brought to the Christ child. However, the number of Wise Men has been estimated from two to twelve over the centuries.

Over the passage of time, the Holy Family was substituted for the Magi as symbols for the "three ships" in the lyrics. Others hypothesize the three ships are references to the Holy Trinity. Still others contend the three ships are a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:13 (King James Version), "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

No matter the interpretation, it one of the most delightful and enduring Christmas carols of all time.

Fascinating facts about this Christmas song you are dying to know

To be honest, I never paid much attention to the lyrics of this carol. The words "I saw three ships" never connected with me or aroused my curiosity. I just liked the energy and lilt of the melody. But it turns out the background to the lyrics is fascinating.

The many variant texts of this carol can be attributed to the Mediterranean journeys of the "relics" (skeletal remains--skulls, possibly nearly entire skeletons) of the Magi. Some historians say it was the Empress Helena (Saint Helen), mother of Constantine the Great, who carried the relics to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in the 4th century. They were taken to Milan by St. Eustathius in 344. They were finally given to the Archbishop of Cologne, Germany in 1164.

A shrine to hold the relics was finished circa 1225. It is a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus or casket:

Here is another view:

Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral was begun in 1248 to house this important shrine containing the relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete and is now the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. Have a look:

Here is the interior:

On July 20, 1864, the shrine was opened, and the remains and 2000-year-old clothes of the Three Kings were examined. An eyewitness report of the time reads:

"In a special compartment of the shrine now there showed—along with remains of ancient old rotten or moulded bandages, most likely byssus (a fine-textured linen of ancient times, used by the Egyptians for wrapping mummies), besides pieces of aromatic resins and similar substance—numerous bones of three persons, which under the guidance of several present experts could be assembled into nearly complete bodies: the one in his early youth, the second in his early manhood, the third was rather aged…"

One version of the carol includes these, in light of the above, amazing lines:

I axed 'em what they'd got on board
They said they'd got three crawns (skulls)
I axed 'em where they was taken to They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine (Cologne, Germany)
I axed 'em where they came frae
They said they came frae Bethlehem

It is likely that in English versions of the song, the voyage to Cologne has been fused and confused with the idea of the three ships symbolizing the magi (arriving at a landlocked Bethlehem!), and later the Holy Family.

Listen to the Arrangements

I have three versions of the arrangement. The first is fairly easy to play. The second has some nice added harmonies and harmonics that make it more interesting but take the arrangement to an intermediate level. The third version is very similar to version 2 except it has an added section in harmonics.

I Saw Three Ships, Version #1 (Easier Version) arranged by Douglas Niedt
I Saw Three Ships, Version #2 (Intermediate Version) arranged by Douglas Niedt
I Saw Three Ships, Version #3 (Added section in harmonics) arranged by Douglas Niedt

The Sheet Music to the Arrangements

I have three versions of the arrangement. Each is in standard notation and tab.

  • The easier version: Version #1 is for early intermediate players. You don't have to do bar chords and most of the execution should be doable in a few weeks. It can be played slowly and will still sound good.

  • Version #2: This version is for intermediate level players and above. It has bar chords and fancier variations and more complex harmonies.

  • Version #3: This version is for intermediate level players and above. This one has a little variation in harmonics that is very fun and a different ending. It also has the more advanced harmonies of Version #2 (the first four pages are identical).

Download the PDF of the arrangement to your computer. All three versions of the arrangement are in this sheet music package.

About the Key and Fingering

For this classical guitar arrangement, I chose the key of A major to keep the melody in a higher range and because the melody could be played in natural harmonics in this key.

The fingering choices in the Christmas song were made to keep the melody on the first string for an even tone quality.

About the Harmonics

All the versions of this energetic Christmas song contain natural harmonics at the 9th fret (Version 2 also has a harmonic at the 4th fret). On most classical guitars, harmonics at those frets are slightly out of tune. Don't try to fix them--you will only throw off the tuning of the other strings. I think the slightly off intonation gives the passages a charming music box effect.

Speaking of harmonics, in the standard notation staves, I used diamond-shaped notes to indicate natural harmonics. These diamond-shaped notes are NOT the pitches that come out of the guitar! They are notations of where you place your fingers to produce the harmonics.

Remember, on the classical guitar, to get a clear and loud natural harmonics, always pluck the strings 1-3 inches from the bridge--not at the soundhole.

How Fast Should You Play It?

There is no one tempo for any of these versions. You can even adopt a freely changing tempo. Do what sounds good to you and what you can play well. The Basic Version is especially versatile in terms of tempo choice.

My special thanks goes to composer/guitarist Elizabeth Niedt for her valuable assistance with this classical guitar arrangement.

Two Common Versions of the Lyrics to I Saw Three Ships

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning


And who do you think was in them then?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And who do you think was in them then
But Joseph and his lady


He did whistle and she did sing
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
He did whistle and she did sing
On Christmas day in the morning


And all the bells on earth did ring
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the bells on earth did ring
On Christmas day in the morning


And all the angels in heaven did sing
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the angels in heaven did sing
On Christmas day in the morning


I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning

Or, another common version of the Christmas carol:

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.


Our Saviour Christ and his lady
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.


Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.


Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.


Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day in the morning.