I Saw Three Ships

Because of their familiarity, Christmas carols can be excellent songs with which to explore open and alternate tunings. Of course, those that have relatively simple chord structures and that are fairly short are even better to work with. So here is an open D tuning arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships,” a traditional English Christmas carol.

Since it is such a short carol, let’s try doing two verses in different styles . First we’ll play a single verse in a very basic chord melody arrangement (noted as “Section A” in the music) and then we’ll follow that up with the second verse (“Section B”) that explores more of the complicated chords you can easily play in open D tuning.

Of course, you want to first be in open D tuning.  Here is how to do so:

Open D Tuning Chart

First tune both E strings down one full step to D. Then tune your B string down one full step to A and then tune the G string down a half-step down to F#. When you strum all six open strings, it will be a D chord.

By the way, it would be smart at this point (especially if you’re interested in exploring open tunings), to give make a quick read of our Guitar Noise lesson, “Look Ma, No Hands (An Introduction to Open Tuning, Part 1)”. This will give you a basic understanding of how open tunings work. “Here There Be Monsters,” which is Part 2 of that lesson, details how to find your basic chords in any given open tuning.

Now let’s get on with “I Saw Three Ships,” shall we?


The verses of “I Saw Three Ships” are eight measures long, which makes it easy to tackle them in two four-measure phrases that pretty much match the lyrical lines. In “Section A,” which is just a single verse of the song, we’ll use just four basic chords: D (the open strings of the guitar), A (either barring all the strings at the seventh fret or just barring the first four strings and leaving the fifth string, A, open and not striking the sixth string), G (barring all the strings at the fifth fret) and Bm7, which we’ll get to in a moment. Here are the first four measures:

I Saw Three Ships guitar part example 1

Essentially, you are simply adding melody notes to the D chord, played on the open strings in the first and third measures (the first full measure and not just the single pickup note of the open second string) and the A chord of the second and fourth measures, which is played by barring the first four strings at the seventh fret. Using your index finger to barre the strings at the seventh fret allows you, in the second measure, to play the F# note (ninth fret of the second string) with your ring finger and the G note (tenth fret) with your pinky.

Although the third measure starts out with the open D chord (and the melody note, F#, at the fourth fret of the first string), we then change to a Bm7 chord, created by placing fingers at the second fret of the second and fifth strings:

Bm7 chord shapes

Using your index finger for the fifth string and your middle finger on the second string, as shown in the first chord chart, frees up your pinky to get the fourth fret of the first string, as shown in the second chart. Even though you don’t play the whole chord when adding that melody note, get into the habit of making this chord, as you’re going to need it very shortly!

Things get slightly more complicated, but not overly so, in the last two measures of the second half of Section A:

I Saw Three Ships guitar part example two

You’ll notice that the first two measures are exactly the same as those in “Example 1.” Measure three starts out with the second Bm7 chord you just formed at the end of the third measure in “Example 1″ and then shifts to a G chord, played by barring across all six strings with your index finger. Use your middle or ring finger to get the E note at the seventh fret of the second string and then your pinky to get the F# note at the ninth fret. It is a bit of a stretch, but because the frets are spaced a little closer together higher up the neck, most of you should be able to handle this. If not, simply abandon the barre and play the single note at the ninth fret of the second string by sliding  your ring finger from the seventh fret up two frets. This gives you a smooth way to shift your index finger up to barre the seventh fret in the final measure.

You can, if you’d like, simply play Section A over and over again and not even worry about the following section. But if you’re of a mood to explore more of the chord possibilities in open D tuning, then be sure to take the time to work through Section A first to warm your fingers up for Section B.


I should point out that Section B involves a lot of chord changes. However, most of these are based on similar chord shapes so it becomes more a matter of getting used to shifting the entire shapes up and down the neck, which is excellent practice for all guitarists. Here are the first four measures of Section B:

I Saw Three Ships guitar part example 3

I should also point out that, silly as it sounds, you shouldn’t be all that concerned with the names of these chords – they could very easily go by a number of names. For instance, you can call the very second chord in the first measure A9sus4:

A9sus4 chord chart

A lot of musicians might find it easier to think of this chord as Em7/A. To matters even more interesting, G6/A is also a viable possibility.

Regardless of what (if anything) you decide to call it, for this chord shape, as well as the subsequent variations coming up, you may find it easiest to use your middle finger on the lowest string (in this case the fourth string) and your ring finger on the highest (here the second string), leaving your index finger for the string in the middle.

After playing this chord, you take all your fingers off to get the open strings again, then place your middle and index fingers right where they were a moment ago and shift your ring finger to the second fret of the first (thinnest) string. Then you’ll shift all three fingers two frets up the neck, resulting in the following two chords:

A7 and D chord charts

The second measure in Section B introduces two variations of the full-barre A and G:

A and Gadd9 chord charts

For these chords you want to use the same fingering, shifting your index finger up one fret so that all your fingers are in a line.

The third measure of Section B reintroduces the Bm7 chord from Section A and also embellishes it by adding the E note at the second fret of the first string (use your ring finger).

The very last chord of the third measure is the first of several that involve all four fingers. Here are the first two:

F#m and Em7 chord charts

The last three chords in the last measure of “Example 3″ are either a shift up or simple variations of the first chord you learned in this section:

F#m A7 and A7sus4 chord charts

The last four measures of Section B use all these chords in different combinations, just to make the arrangement a little more interesting:

I Saw Three Ships guitar part example four

You want to take all of Section B very slowly as you become familiar with these new chord shapes. Even though they are very similar to chords you already know, such as D7 and B7, it will take a bit of practice and repetition to get comfortable and fluid moving from one chord to the next.

When you’re ready, you might want to try out the whole thing:

Download a PDF of the complete arrangement

And please, as always, forgive whatever mistakes I may have made trying to play this. Especially don’t laugh at my botching the very end by adding an extra note!

In spite of the mistakes, I do hope that you enjoy this arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” and that you find it a good introduction into the world of playing chord melodies in open tunings. They can be a lot of fun and often quite easy to do.

My best wishes to you, your family and friends for a wonderful holiday and may 2014 turn out to be a terrific year for you all.

Until our next lesson,